VPN Meaning: What Is a VPN Connection & What Do VPNs Do for You?

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Michael Scheiner
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You’ve heard the names like ExpressVPN and NordVPN, so now you want to know more about the VPN meaning. You’re asking us, what is a VPN and what does it do? And we’ll tell you. Then you turn and ask again, but how does VPN work? Don’t fret, we've got all the answers.

 

What is VPN protection? VPN meaning explained

VPN stands for a virtual private network. The meaning of VPN protection comes down to giving you an internet connection that does not use your real IP address, but instead, lets you access the internet via a VPN server which will give you a new and different IP address.

 

So, what is a VPN connection?

A VPN internet connection is when a VPN service reroutes your IP address to another VPN server located somewhere else. This means that your ISP, or internet service provider, will not be able to see where you are located or other data associated with your IP address.

The VPN connection meaning is one that is rather clear cut and not too many people are confused about this. In general, VPN connections are secure and private connections to the internet via encryption, or an encrypted tunnel.

Imagine that your IP address is like your home address out in the countryside. And the internet or world wide web is like the nearby town where you can go to work, shop, watch movies, meet with friends, play games, or attend school. In this metaphor, your ISP is like the road that takes you from your country home to the town. Whenever you take this road, the ISP that controls the road will know where you are coming from, and your ISP will also know where you go in town, that is, which websites you visit and other personal data about your online activity and browsing history. 

A VPN provider is like a private road, or an encrypted underground hidden tunnel, that will take you from your country home to the town, or more literally, will connect you to the internet via VPN protocols which are hidden from your ISP. This is what a VPN connection is all about.

 

What is a VPN server address?

When discussing virtual private networks, there are some VPN basics to go over. Chief among these are VPN server addresses. What are they? 

When you want internet access, you must be ready to provide an IP to your ISP to be allowed online, whether we are talking about public wi-fi networks, cellular data access, or using your home wi-fi router account. When this happens, your ISP will see where you are logging on from, and from there, it can track all sorts of web activity and tie it back to your personal IP address.

A VPN server is a server operated by a VPN provider. These VPN providers place their servers in different countries all over the world. VPN users who want to get online through a VPN client’s secure tunnel will firstly pick one of the VPN servers in another country. When this happens, it will look like whoever is using the internet is located in that country where the VPN app’s server is located.

For example, if I am in the USA and I log onto the internet from my home connection or a public wi-fi, the ISP will be able to tell that I am in the United States. However, if I use a VPN app and choose a VPN server in, say, the UK or Holland, then it will appear to the ISP that I am also physically situated in the United Kingdom or the Netherlands.

 

How does a VPN protect you?

So, what is the purpose of VPN? The main purpose of a VPN is cybersecurity. VPN clients protect you and the data you generate with your internet traffic. Common VPN encryption protocols include the military-grade AES-256 encryption, for example. In this next section, we’ll unfold the questions, what is the point of a VPN and how does a VPN protect me regarding safe and secure internet activities.

  • VPNs mask your IP address

  • VPNs can wipe your browsing history

  • VPNs block trackers

  • VPNs protect you from malware

  • VPNs do leak tests or leak protection

  • VPNs have kill switch functionality

  • VPNs scan the dark web

VPNs mask your IP address

The first way that VPN protects you is that it hides, or masks, or spoofs your IP address. We’ve discussed this above. To repeat, instead of your ISP seeing your true IP and therefore your location, the VPN server will give you a new IP located in the country where the server is located. And it’s not only your ISP who won’t see your real IP address, but the same goes for advertisers, hackers and governments.

VPNs can wipe your browsing history

When you surf, you leave a data trail behind all the sites you visited and everything you did online. The best VPN can automatically wipe your browsing history clean, leaving no trail of your online activity. As you travel the world wide web through a VPN encrypted connection, the VPN can make sure you leave no identifying, or incriminating data residue which can be traced back to you personally.

VPNs block trackers

The purpose of web trackers are not too dissimilar from ISP snooping discussed above. They are like little bugs that jump in your hair as you walk around town, but these bugs also send updates back to the mother-bug. Literally, these trackers can hitch rides with your web-surfing to follow you around and send data back to internet and commercial companies. Cookies are major trackers, and VPNs are a great way to protect yourself from cookies.

VPNs protect you from malware

Malware are malicious bits of code which could either be sneakily inserted into your system to destroy your computer or mobile device, or to steal data, or even be used to extort you by locking you out of your system, or worse, blackmail you or commit identity theft. Common malware include viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, botnets, and spyware. There are many types of VPN that specialize in malware protection.   

VPNs do leak tests or leak protection

Whenever you attempt to connect to a website, there are these protocols that take place beneath the user-friendly surface of your screen. For example, DNS, or domain name system, as well as WebRTC, or web real-time communication. These protocols need to send some IP information to make the connection, which VPNs are supposed to block or obscure. But sometimes data can slip through with your DNS request. That’s a leak, and some VPNs stop them, or give you tools to do DNS leak tests.

VPNs have kill switch functionality

When you are surfing the internet with a VPN app, feeling totally secure using encrypted security protocols, you are safe from prying eyes. But sometimes, a VPN's connection drops, even if only for a second, and in that instant, your secure connection disappears and you are left naked and exposed. The best VPN providers offer the kill switch tool to protect you even in those instances. If your VPN connection drops, the kill switch activates and kills your internet connection as well, so you and your IP are not exposed.  

VPNs scan the dark web

The clean web or surface web is the internet consisting of all the sites you can find with a commercial search engine like Google. The deep web, which is much much bigger, has all the sites which have not been indexed by Google or the like. Then there’s the dark web with websites that are purposefully hidden or hard to find, and where a lot of hackers meet or other shady business goes down.

When identity theft occurs, the dark web is where those IDs are bought and sold. The top VPN services can offer dark web scanners which alert you if any of your personal data shows up somewhere on the dark web.

 

What does a VPN do for you aside from protection?

There are many other VPN uses beyond cybersecurity and protecting your online life. So, what does VPN do for you other than mask your IP and block malicious viruses? In other words, why use a VPN in other areas of the internet? Let’s look at some uses aside from protection.

  • Using a VPN for streaming

  • Using a VPN for gaming

  • Using a VPN for shopping

  • Using a VPN for studying

  • Using a VPN to avoid throttling

  • Using a VPN as an ad blocker

  • Using a VPN to split your traffic

  • Using a VPN for remote access

  • Using a VPN for torrenting

Using a VPN for streaming

Lots of our entertainment content these days is accessible through streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, HBO, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Microsoft Edge, Firestick TV, and more. However, many of these streaming sites use firewalls. Firewalls are basically blockers that control who gets into a website and who does not, sort of like club bouncers. When it comes to streaming, firewalls are there to protect geo-restricted content, in other words, TV shows and movies which may only be available on, say, Netflix Canada but not in Netflix USA. Running a VPN can help you bypass these geo-restrictions and firewalls. 

Using a VPN for gaming

Much like streaming services, online gaming is the new way to get video games, play them, interact with the gaming community, as well as to keep your game software up to date. VPNs can help bypass gaming site firewalls in case any gaming content is restricted. VPNs can also give you access to servers in other countries which means you can appear to be in different time zones, which is useful if you want to be first in line for the latest game downloads that start in some parts of the world before others.

Using a VPN for shopping

Online shopping is the way to go for many people these days. Not only is it easier, but it allows for a much wider selection, and this includes price-comparison shopping. By using a VPN to mask your location, you can compare the prices of similar items from different online shops around the world. For example, if an item you want costs 50 euros from Amazon Germany, but only 40 euros from Amazon France, a VPN will make it super easy to shop at Amazon France to get the price you desire. 

Using a VPN for studying

Many universities and other academic institutions have their own private networks, which are open to everyone in that institution. So this means when you get online with your school’s free wi-fi, you are vulnerable to other malicious agents also using that wi-fi. What’s more, a VPN service can help unlock articles and essays and online textbooks that may otherwise be behind a paywall for those who are not registered at that school. Even the most basic free VPNs can sometimes help get around these limitations to higher learning.

Using a VPN to avoid throttling

Data throttling is a relatively new phenomenon. Let us return to our metaphor. Your home computer, laptop or mobile device is your country home, the internet is the town, but in this case, the ISP is the public transportation system that takes you to town, that is, connects you online. Throttling is when a corporation or other entity can pay the ISP to give more bandwidth to some parts of the internet and slow down others. It is as if certain shops in the town can pay the bus authority to provide more routes and more frequent bus arrivals to their doorstep, while if you want to visit other sites that did not pay for this privilege, you’ll have to wait a long time for a bus which will be slow. VPNs can alert you if you are being throttled, or by spoofing your IP, can avoid throttling all together.

Using a VPN as an ad blocker

Advertisements are not necessarily malware, but they are quite close, and there is even a word for it called adware. Ads can interrupt your browsing, clog your bandwidth with pop ups, or worse, they can track you and hound you with ads that are uncannily too personal. Ad companies can also use your data to make profits, which will only further entrench them into your web experience. While this is not a complete part of security, it is important for online privacy that any secure VPN can help you get around.

Using a VPN to split your traffic

Split tunneling, or website bypassing, is another useful feature of many great corporate VPNs and some free VPNs. This is when you have certain websites that, for one reason or another, you want to access as your true self using your real IP address. It could be for personal log-in reasons, to access your saved account preferences, or because the service is better without a VPN. VPNs offer split tunneling whereby you can put certain websites on a white list, and when you go to those sites, you bypass the VPN and visit them directly. Meanwhile, the rest of your traffic will still flow through the VPN tunneling protocol for max privacy.

Using a VPN for remote access

Not all VPNs are standard personal VPNs or mobile VPNs for smartphones. There are also other kinds of VPN, like the remote access VPN. This is for when a company or institution wants to set up their own private network and include all the protection of a VPN. This is ideal for when a company expects its workers to stay on their network even if the worker is doing their job remotely. There are also site-to-site VPNs which function similarly. A site-to-site VPN is like a private VPN network between two terminals or computers or systems.

Using a VPN for torrenting

Torrenting may not be as big today as it used to be thanks to streaming services, but there are still many great reasons to want to continue to torrent. Torrenting is a kind of P2P, or peer-to-peer file transfer protocol. It is often used to download media content, but can also be used for many other purposes. Because torrenting is seen as piracy by some corporations and governments, it is highly frowned upon, and many internet service providers actively block you from doing it. While most corporate VPN sites do not explicitly say they help with torrenting for legal reasons, most VPN apps are great and necessary if you want to torrent.

 

How does a VPN work?

Let’s move beyond cybersecurity now and discuss VPN functionality and in general, how VPNs work.

Firstly, it should be noted that a VPN service can work on a variety of operating systems, platforms and devices, like Windows, Android, Mac, Linux, and iOS devices like iPhones and iPads.

Next, VPNs work by swapping out your real IP address for a new IP address provided by one of the VPN’s many global servers.

After that, VPNs need to use an internet protocol, or tunneling protocol, to regulate how your data traffic will flow to and from the internet. The most common VPN internet protocols are: WireGuard, OpenVPN, L2TP / IPSec, IPSec / IKEv2, SSTP, and PPTP.

A bit more about these VPN protocols:

  • OpenVPN is an open source protocol and is widely used, running on TCP and UDP security protocols. It’s great at bypassing firewalls and general cybersecurity. 

  • WireGuard is relatively new, very lightweight, and is ideal for streaming and gaming. 

  • IPSec/IKEv2 is mostly used for Windows, and is very good for streaming, gaming and also for mobile Android devices. 

  • SSTP, which is based on AES-256, offers very strong browsing privacy and anonymity. 

  • PPTP is standard for home use and for accessing restricted content.  

  • L2TP/IPSec these days is the least common, and tends to be quite slow.

Then, there are SSL protocols. SSL stands for secure socket layer, and it’s pretty technical stuff. SSL VPNs perform secure authentication to make sure that the connection between a user and a website or HTTP / HTTPS is safe and stable.

Say you want to go to a social media site but do not want to appear as your own profile because you want to secretly and anonymously check out someone else’s social media profile. VPN protocols can allow you to visit the social media site as an unregistered guest, where you can then feel free to create a new profile or just creep around anonymously.

The above example is just one way that VPNs work. VPN users have many other good functionalities for this kind of service.

A final word about VPN versus TOR, or the onion router. We’ve already discussed a bit about the deep web and dark web. Tor is one web browser which you can use to surf these parts of the internet. It provides some security and privacy in different ways than a VPN does. You can, and you should, use a VPN alongside your Tor browser because surfing the dark web requires that extra level of safety.

 

Why do you need VPN technology? Our final concluding takeaway points

Are you still asking yourself, why do you need a VPN? Seriously? After all those explanations and good reasons? Fair enough I guess.

Let me reiterate on why you should use a VPN just one more time. The internet can be a scary place, full of viruses and malware, as well as hackers, blackmailers, extorters, corporate trackers, and state sponsored espionage G-men. Virtual private networks protect you, your identity, and your private internet data from getting into the wrong hands.

It doesn’t matter if you use Windows, Mac or Linux, or if you surf only from desktop, laptops or smartphones on iOS or Android, web vulnerabilities are real and VPNs are the best way to be protected.

Of course, it’s also quite amazing how you can use a VPN to watch your favorite TV shows, movies or get access to sporting events no matter from where in the world they are streamed or broadcasted. With a VPN, geo-restrictions and firewalls can hardly keep you from enjoying the web content you desire. Same thing goes for gaming, library access, or comparative price shopping.

There are many great options out there, from big corporate VPNs like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, Cyberghost, TunnelBear, Proton VPN, VPNhub or IPVanish. Many of these brands also offer free VPNs. However, be warned, a free VPN will never be as effective, secure, and safe as a paid VPN. Don’t worry, these apps are quite affordable, costing sometimes as little as a buck or two per month when you subscribe to a one-year or two-year plan. There are also some open-source VPNs, like OpenVPN.

And so we come to the end of this piece where we’ve asked, and answered, what is a VPN? What is a VPN used for? How do you use a VPN? And how do VPNs protect you? We hope you will now go out and get yourself a great VPN. You must, seriously.

 

FAQs

Do VPNs really work?

VPNs work very well for a variety of purposes. They can hide your true IP and make it appear you are visiting the internet from a different location. VPNs can block malware, and prevent companies or hackers from collecting your data. VPNs also let you access restricted content.

How does a virtual private network (VPN) provide additional security over other types of networks?

A VPN can provide much more internet security than other types of networks because VPNs offer you an encrypted tunnel through which you can get online and surf the web anonymously. Ad blockers and anti virus apps do not mask your IP address like a VPN does.

What is a VPN number?

A VPN is a virtual private network, used to mask your IP so that you are anonymous to your ISP or other third-parties who track your online activity. A VPN number can refer to the VPN server ID number, or it can be a VPN associated with a mobile device.

What does a VPN use to ensure that any transmissions that are intercepted will be indecipherable?

VPNs use data encryption protocols to ensure your online traffic is safe and private, like AES-256 or XChaCha20. VPNs also use tunneling protocols which regulate the authentication of how your data traffic will flow, like OpenVPN, WireGuard, IPSec / IKEv2, SSTP, L2TP / IPSec or PPTP for added online security.

Does VPN work on wifi?

Yes, virtual private networks function on wi-fi, whether your own private wi-fi, a shared wi-fi in an office or school, or a free public wi-fi. It is highly advisable to use a VPN with wi-fi but especially with public wi-fi hotspots as this is how your data gets stolen.

What is a VPN typically used for?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is typically used to surf the web anonymously, to protect your data from hackers, to block malware or invasive ads, and to bypass firewalls to access restricted content. Many of the best VPNs do this, like NordVPN or ExpressVPN. 

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